There are few English towns with finer views than Morecambe, with days of sunshine or even high cloud bringing forth spectacular visits over the bay and the hills of the Lake District in the background. The view the other way sadly does not hold the same appeal – gloomy tall 19th century buildings in poor repair, perhaps once boarding houses for summer holiday trade long gone, now most likely houses of multiple occupation. Behind these, a town centre long described as struggling.
My travelling companion of the day, a city dweller across continents, is in their head redefining the town, knocking down the entire seafront to be replaced with modern flats with balconies for tech workers to be inspired by the view. This is perhaps partly inspired by the success of faded resorts nearer London such as Margate, Hastings, and Folkestone suddenly finding a new lease of life.
The North West and levelling up
The first is unlikely to happen, the second seems to have been an organic process, and neither comes close to what the government seems to be proposing for levelling up. We are likely to get the suggestion of more regional mayors, but given that the most successful political party in Morecambe for the last 25 years has been the one calling for separatism from Lancaster City Council, this may not be fully welcomed.
Just a few miles away from Morecambe, that neighbouring city can claim to be more successful in almost every way except football, a 1960s university consistently rated in the top ten in the country bringing its share of spin-off activities. You’d not know that from its own centre though, increasingly struggling as so many are with big shops and pubs closing leaving gaps to be filled with flats of uncertain quality. It also remains the case that major local employers remain public or quasi-public, from the NHS to the Heysham Nuclear Power station.
This is not the stereotypical north, for until 1997 it was typically Conservative territory. There were mills though, supporting linoleum manufacturing, now largely converted to housing. Some things are still made, like so much of the country largely in anonymous industrial estates on the fringes.
The impact of technology on our town centres and communities
Every town and city has its unique stories, across the UK, though if you travel around as more of us have done in the last two years due to international travel restrictions, there are some commonalities. Town centres have generally been declining, and fewer people are employed in manufacturing than there were many years previously.
Both of these trends can be blamed on a variety of things, from the UK property market to competition from China. The primary driver however is technology: the town centres are declining because we’re buying more online, and manufacturing employs fewer people because productivity has risen so much. In the latter case, technology has also enabled supply chains to be split across countries or even continents, a truly global competition that leaves individual communities vulnerable.
We can see the same trends in other countries, as you would expect, and indeed they seem to be a driver for populist politics including Trump and Brexit. The response to them across Europe and North America seems remarkably similar also: return manufacturing from China. If only life were as simple as simply setting the clock back 50 years, except for the parts of the past we didn’t like.
Levelling up plans encounter the reality of UK infrastructure
The UK government’s levelling up plans seem from indications to be a combination of local funds for town centre improvements, changes to local government structures, and hopes that more may be invested. Moving civil servants out of London is to be further encouraged. All worthy no doubt, but none obviously different to what previous governments have tried and found not particularly successful.
It is striking that the plans do not seem to reference how the UK is seen by others, in particular major inward investors. One UK sector that is currently thriving is film and TV production, but the overwhelming number of these facilities seem to be broadly in the southeast. The engineering hub of the UK car industry is increasingly in a similar area; with the M4 corridor and area further north particular strengths. This is likewise the case with pharmaceutical production. It seems that these investors want access to UK skills, but preferably within striking distance of London.
That isn’t saying much about our infrastructure, and with good reason. The UK is significantly behind European counterparts in high-speed rail, and only London competes particularly well in terms of urban transport. That seems to strongly influence views, and not in a good way for us. There may be clusters of technical excellence all over the country, but when it comes to major activity, the starting point is typically London.
Levelling up must understand our country and value the skills and jobs the North offers
Then there are the sectors ignored, starting with universities: highly regarded outside the country, major hubs of activity within, and intensely disliked by the government. We should be seeking to expand the sector; instead, in the face of growing competition globally we are trying to discourage UK students from attending university and are starving the sector of money, with the net effect that there will be no expansion. Levelling up excludes university towns and cities evidently.
Perhaps levelling up is just about the real ex-manufacturing towns, but as has been noted, you can’t just expect the exact same jobs as you had before to return. There is a better option: to improve the status of the jobs that do exist, from the logistics warehouses that are the modern factories, to the army of self-employed contractors who result from the UK’s outsourcing passion. Neither group are ever the UK political priority.
All of which is to say that there are many policies a UK government could be pursuing if levelling up was a genuine passionate objective. These can be done whether you’re in or out of the EU – which brings different challenges and opportunities – but in neither case is this the golden or terminal ticket.
A good understanding of the country and global economy ought to be at the centre of levelling up. Liking it as it is, rather than some distorted version would help. What we seem to be getting instead is the leftover scraps of what passes for current political conformity in the Conservative Party.